What is Past is Prologue.

This month in movie history.
While art in any form, be it films or books or music, is sometimes mired in the current or even the next big thing, looking back can afford a glimpse into that very present and future. So this month, I decided to take a little stroll down memory lane and see how things have progressed since my teenage years and what affect the films of yesterday have had on films of today.

25 YEARS AGO:

  • The Breakfast Club: Since James Dean bawled “You’re tearing me apart!” in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, high school teenagers had, for the most part, been largely ignored on the big screen. Sure, you had the thirty-somethings posing as teenagers in the gleeful sex musical Grease, but that was hardly an honest representation of teen angst in the 70s. You had The Graduate and American Graffiti but those were movies about teenagers entering adulthood as they egressed the relative safety their high school years. Not until John Hughes defined the 1980s high school experience with this examination of the multi-clique social structure did teenagers inside the rough-and-tumble world of high school get fair representation. Even if you didn’t identify with any of these characters, chances are you knew someone just like one of them.

    After this movie, high school got a little more respect with films like Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused, the Sixteen Candles knock-off Can’t Hardly Wait, and even contemporary fare like Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist. John Hughes paved the way for them all and The Breakfast Club is the archetypal template. The highlight of the film is probably Ally Sheedy’s quiet social pariah who sprinkles dandruff snowflakes on her sketches and gets defensive about an impromptu makeover (“Why? Claire did it.”) The happy-together ending may not ring true but many of the realities within still hold today. Most notably, Claire’s admission that come Monday morning none of them are likely to remain friends.

  • Witness: Harrison Ford tries to shed his Han Solo/Indiana Jones image in this culture-clash cop drama and winds up with his first (and only) Oscar nomination. A quarter-century later and he’s trying the same trick, following the goofy Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with the ABC Family movie Extraordinary Measures.
  • The Mean Season: The same year ol’ Indy went legit Kurt Russell went all Harrison Ford on us and developed his first ordinary-man-in-an-extraordinary-situation as newspaper reporter Malcolm Anderson. It’s a character he would repeat in movies like Executive Decision, Breakdown and Poseidon years later.

20 YEARS AGO:

  • Flashback: Dennis Hopper’s Huey Walker proclaimed to Kiefer Sutherland’s John Buckner in this film that “once we get out of the eighties, the nineties are gonna make the sixties look like the fifties.” Well, not quite. The 90s did bring us O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky, but it would be another decade and two more presidents before the 60s shit really hit the fan once more. Coincidentally, that’s about when Sutherland would suit up to play another, much more famous, federal agent in 24. In Flashback, he plays the disaffected 1960s flower child of free spirit parents who repudiates his bohemian upbringing by joining the FBI. Against that, who else but Dennis Hopper could play the anachronistic hippie revolutionary with an ulterior capitalist motive? A film that is probably largely overlooked as little more than a lark, it nonetheless taps into that post-80s angst of a generation in search of a revolution. A generation that would give rise to grunge music, Quentin Tarantino, and Woodstock II.

TEN YEARS AGO:

  • Pitch Black: The movie that, for better or worse, put Vin Diesel in everyone’s crosshairs, this little gem from director David Twohy (perhaps best known as the writer of The Fugitive) was far more clever than one would expect from a genre film. Expertly weaving extra-terrestrial biology and physics into classic sci-fi/horror fare, Twohy unveils a scenario that is both familiar and unexpected. From its stunning opening sequence of a spacecraft crash-landing on an alien world to its unswerving anti-hero ending, Pitch Black would quietly pave the way for angst-ridden comic book movie adaptations that would follow for the next decade.
  • The Beach: I’ve never read the book but I remember the excitement and furor built up over its motion picture adaptation, and the unlikely casting of Leonard DiCaprio, who was still attempting to rid himself of his little-boy image and Titanic backlash.
  • Boiler Room: Wall Street for the new millennium, this story of turn-and-burn investment brokers will probably always be timely, but it presages the dot-com bust that would happen the following month, and the current financial crisis almost a decade later. It seems appropriate, then, that greed-is-good icon Gordon Gekko would return in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps this Spring.
  • Wonder Boys: Coming at the close of the 20th century, this Curtis Hanson drama starring Michael Douglas (playing against a pre-rehab Robert Downey, Jr. and a pre-Peter Parker Tobey Maguire) summed up the desultory ennui that America was experiencing before getting blindsided by a pair of planes in Lower Manhattan.

FIVE YEARS AGO:

  • Inside Deep Throat: I only caught the tail-end of this engaging documentary that is less about the porn industry than it is about the way Americans deal with the rather basic biological issue of sex. While we will likely never become comfortable in our collective sexuality (at least, not in my lifetime), it’s good to have films like this breaking down those taboo barriers and examining in the full light of day what everyone is thinking about anyway, no matter how much we want to keep it in the closet.
  • Hitch: After years of kicking alien butt and keeping Miami safe from drug dealers, Will Smith branches out and does his first romantic comedy… well. Notable for being one of the few (if not only) interracial romantic comedies to avoid the race issue altogether. Eva Mendes is more than a match for Big Willie and the two of them make romantic comedies breezy and fun again in the spirit of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.
  • Diary of a Mad Black Woman: In all honesty, I’ve never seen this film (I just can’t get past the Madea character). However, it would be remiss of me to ignore the movie that effectively launched Tyler Perry’s motion picture career.

LAST YEAR:

  • Coraline: Though I did not see this film in 3D, it seemed a natural for it and I’m sure it was marvelous. Before James Cameron demonstrated what can happen when sucking the life out of living actors in order to motion-capture some semblance of verisimilitude into Avatar, Coraline illustrated that, once again, it is strong characters and situations that breathe life into a movie, as well as an environment artfully — if not always realistically — rendered.
  • Confessions of a Shopaholic: A breezy tale of addiction and poor money management. Perfect for the seemingly endless global recession and for confronting the American ideal that simply buying a bunch of stuff will solve any problem and carry no consequences.